Outborough Destiny: Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens


Lee Konstantinou in the LA Review of Books:

IN 2004, The New York Times reported on the effort of the borough of Queens to find a replacement for Hal Sirowitz, its departing poet laureate, “one of those rare New York writers who is willing — eager, in fact — to identify himself with the borough.” The qualifications for the position were simple: “The winner must be someone who has lived in Queens for at least five years and has written, in English, ‘poetry inspired by the borough.’” But finding someone who met both criteria proved more difficult than expected. Compared to other boroughs — especially Manhattan and Brooklyn — theTimes concluded that “[t]he muse has been less kind to Queens.” Submissions ranged from poems celebrating the fact that the city’s two airports were housed in the borough to odes to those felled on Queens Boulevard, America’s premiere Boulevard of Death.

With Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem — now, inconveniently for official purposes, a resident of California — makes a belated bid for the job of the borough’s poet laureate. Lethem’s longstanding willingness to traverse borders, whether of culture, race, or genre, carries him away from his beloved Brooklyn into what his narrator calls “that impossible homeland of steaming stacks and tombstones.” Dissident Gardens suggests that if you can overcome what Lethem calls “Boroughphobia,” you might find in Queens the makings of something like Utopia, a word often hard for American tongues to pronounce without irony.

An assured, expert literary performance by one of our most important writers, Dissident Gardens is a largely plotless, multigenerational novel about the network of characters surrounding Rose Zimmer, a member of the American Communist Party whose husband leaves her, and who must raise their daughter Miriam alone. After being expelled from the Party in 1955 for having an affair with a married black policeman, Douglas Lookins, Rose becomes the “Red Queen” of Sunnyside Gardens, Queens, a community of garden homes built around a common courtyard. Rose is at the center ofDissident Gardens; around her, in the thrall of her tremendous gravity, orbit a variety of other characters.